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New Covid restrictions ‘pose existential threat to Scotland’s city centres’

Nicola Sturgeon eased Covid restrictions.

Business leaders are branding new work from home laws and Covid restrictions as a “lockdown by the backdoor”, and warn that without immediate aid they pose an “existential threat” to Scotland’s city centres.

In an update to parliament, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed legal restrictions on businesses that involve “a return to the kind of protections in place at the start of the pandemic” will be introduced.

These include measures to avoid crowding, such as physical distancing, and a legal duty for firms to allow their staff to work from home again where possible.

Full details have not yet been published but businesses will also be asked to return to managing the flow of customers, use protective screens and step up collection of contact tracing information where appropriate.

Hospitality bosses accused the first minister of using the measures to shutdown the industry “effectively by stealth” while firms struggle without the kinds of financial support made available last year.

Christmas isn’t cancelled

Ms Sturgeon also urged people across Scotland to limit their socialising to three households before and after Christmas to help combat an “exponential” rise in cases of the new Omicron variant.

She says she is not asking people to “cancel” Christmas or proposing limits on household gatherings on Christmas Day, Boxing Day or Christmas Eve, but stressed that “keeping your celebrations as small as family circumstances allow is sensible”.

A man wearing a face mask passes an illuminated Christmas window display outside a shop during the coronavirus pandemic.
A man wearing a face mask passes an illuminated Christmas window display outside a shop during the coronavirus pandemic.

“While we are speeding up vaccination, we must also try to slow down Omicron,” Ms Sturgeon said.

“That is why we are also proposing today, albeit reluctantly, some further protective measures.

“I am appealing to everyone to follow today’s advice, to help slow Omicron down while more of us get our boosters.”

A tidal wave of closures

Business leaders called for further clarity on whether more significant financial assistance, such as the furlough scheme, will return.

Russell Borthwick, chief executive at Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce, said: “The work from home restrictions announced today pose an enormous challenge to businesses and an existential threat to our city centres.

“Whilst it is encouraging to finally see some financial support materialising, it is critical that this now reaches affected sectors as quickly as possible.

“Otherwise, the ‘tsunami’ of infections we are facing will be accompanied by a tidal wave of business closures and job losses.

Russell Borthwick

“We also need urgent clarity from the UK Government on whether more significant financial assistance, such as the furlough scheme, will return.”

The STUC is also calling for “urgent action from the UK Government to bring forward support including the re-introduction of the furlough scheme.”

Emma McClarkin, CEO of the Scottish Beer and Pub Association, said: “This is another a bitter blow to Scotland’s pubs.

“The advice to cancel Christmas parties last week already devastated the sector and these further restrictions effectively create lockdown by the backdoor.”

A shutdown by stealth

Scottish Licensed Trade Association managing director Colin Wilkinson agrees the industry has been shutdown “effectively by stealth” and said businesses are now in an even worse scenario than last Christmas.

“We have not been ordered to close our doors yet but many have no choice when so many bookings have been cancelled,” he said.

“Our industry desperately needs aid to save it – and it needs it now.”

Police officers patrol Union Street and Belmont Street in Aberdeen.

It is understood further guidance on the additional measures announced by the first minister will be published by the end of the week.

Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government has found “around £100 million that we will use to help businesses” that are affected.

But she added that because the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments are not able to borrow cash to help them tackle the virus, they were forced to “rely on the Treasury”.

Treasury announces further support – but gives no further details

The SNP leader told MSPs there were “further steps” the Scottish Government “could and would have considered today – particularly around hospitality – had we the financial ability to do so”.

However, just moments before the first minister stood up at Holyrood, the Treasury confirmed more money will be made available to Scotland and the other devolved administrations.

It is not yet clear how much funding will be made available, and on what basis, but the Treasury said this would be set out “in the coming days”.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

Ms Sturgeon later welcomed the additional cash, saying that while she had no details of this as yet it was “very good progress”.

She added that her government would “look at the impact of the UK funding when we have the detail of that”.

Tory leader warns of ‘unsustainable’ isolation rules

Meanwhile, Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross warned of the impact of “unsustainable” new rules on self-isolation that could see tens of thousands of workers a day told to stay at home.

The new policy means if just one person tests positive for Covid-19, all members of their household have to isolate – even if they go on to test negative for the virus.

Mr Ross raised concerns that it could have a knock-on impact on key services – including the drive to administer more booster vaccines.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross

The Scottish Tory leader said: “We agree with the need for caution, but at the level of cases the government is expecting by next week this rule change could means tens of thousands of Scots put into self isolation every single day.

“We don’t believe this policy is sustainable, it could have knock on consequences, it could impact our transport services, police, schools, workplaces across the country, even our vaccination programme.”

Ms Sturgeon said the requirements on self-isolation would be kept under review and the government has “already started looking at when we might migrate away from that towards something that is more proportionate”.

The Scottish Government has also confirmed a public inquiry into its handling of the Covid pandemic will feature 12 areas of investigation, each covering a strategic element of the handling of the pandemic.

It will be led by former Madras College student the Hon. Lady Poole QC, senator of the College of Justice of Scotland.

Covid Scotland: Nicola Sturgeon sets out schools isolation rules for Scotland amid Omicron surge

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